A planned gift from late WVU graduate James Coffman and his wife, Virginia, is providing valuable funding to educate and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. (Submitted photo)
Late entrepreneur James C. Coffman launched his first business – a boarding house for students – more than 80 years ago to help finance his economics education at West Virginia University. Now, 20 years after his passing, his gifts to the University continue to make an impact by providing start-up support for a new generation of business leaders.
A native of Lumberport, West Virginia, Coffman graduated from WVU in 1943. Decades later, he and his wife, Virginia, pledged $1 million to establish an endowed chair in his name at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics as part of their estate.
Today, the James Clark Coffman Fellow in Entrepreneurial Studies carries on his legacy by providing valuable funding to support research, outreach and education – including an experiential learning course for students in the entrepreneurship program at WVU.
Ryan Angus, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and current Coffman Fellow, challenges senior students in his Entrepreneurship 460 course to launch and grow their own businesses, with the goal of generating $10,000 in sales by the end of the semester. Angus uses the fellowship funds to offer $500 start-up loans, which he encourages students to repay to the WVU Foundation if their businesses become successful.
During the spring 2023 semester, Angus’ students launched 16 businesses that generated more than $38,000 in sales and attracted more than 34,000 followers across social media platforms.
“I wish to express my deep and sincere gratitude for the Coffman family’s donation to WVU in support of entrepreneurship,” Angus said. “These funds have been put to good use and have had a substantial impact on these students’ education that will follow them for the rest of their lives.”
Hailey Bohrer partnered with classmates to launch Black Label Basics, a drop shipping company that provides wardrobe staples for women. She and her partners received a $200 loan, which they used for a Google Ads campaign.
“I really appreciated the opportunity to use this money toward growing my business,” Bohrer said. “This class was extremely untraditional with no textbook, kind of freelance for students wanting to be entrepreneurs. Without the Coffman family, none of this would have been possible because students are financially unable to start a business on their own, with their own money. I will now be able to tell my employer and all future employers about this opportunity. I believe that owning and starting this business has set me apart from many other college students.”
Timothy Nuss worked with classmates to start New River Tea Company. They used their loan to create and test tea blends, design jars, and create appealing packaging.
Timothy Nuss and Andrew Legg founded New River Tea Company with support from the James Clark Coffman Fellowship and sold their product on campus during the spring 2023 semester. (Submitted photo)
“The Coffman family’s donation has given me the opportunity to pursue my passion for running my own small business and has taught me more than a textbook ever could,” Nuss said.
“Throughout the semester, I learned a lot about working with partners, capital investments and marketing my products.”
Coffman’s daughter, Kathleen Kuflewski, was thrilled to hear from Angus and his students, who wrote letters to share their gratitude for the family’s generosity.
“I can’t tell you how touched I was to receive and read all the thank-you letters from Professor Angus’ students,” Kuflewski said. “I wish I could have met and talked with each one of them. The course Dr. Angus designed, Entrepreneurship 460, is exactly the type of course I think my dad envisioned when he set up his chair. It is truly a hands-on course, one where they are learning everything they need to know to start up a business and actually do it. What better education can you get?”
Kuflewski’s father grew up during the Great Depression, one of four boys raised by a single father after their mother passed when Coffman was 9. His father, George, worked 12-hour days as a barber, yet he still struggled to make ends meet.
James, known to his brothers as Clark, knew the key to a better life was education. After an unsuccessful stint at Salem College, he sought to attend what he later described as the “state’s biggest and best educational institution” – WVU.
After enrolling at WVU, Coffman and a friend started a boarding house in Morgantown’s Sunnyside neighborhood to provide meals for students. They sold the business when it became too much to manage, but Coffman continued to work for the new owner in exchange for meals. He later worked nights at Morgantown Ordnance Works while taking classes during the day.
After graduating and serving in World War II, Coffman worked in heavy equipment sales and supply for many years. He and a partner eventually launched Federal Supply and Equipment Co., which supplied parts to government agencies and fixed hydraulic pumps. Coffman handled the bidding on government contracts. He also had a second business, Hydraulic Supply, that he later sold to his partner.
Coffman enjoyed a long retirement prior to his passing on July 31, 2003, due to prostate cancer.
“My father set up his chair with the vision of improving West Virginia’s economy and the earning power of its people,” Kuflewski said. “He grew up poor, and he knew his only way out of that situation was a good education. He created his chair as his way of thanking the University for the education he got that led to his success."
Coffman’s gift was made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.